Monday, July 27, 2009

Bearing Down

This past Saturday, the Brewers held their fourth annual Negro League Tribute Night. As part of the festivities, the Crew wore throwback uniforms honoring the 1923 Milwaukee Bears, the Cream City's short-lived entry in the Negro National League.

The Bears were one of a pair of teams hastily created to fill the vacancies left in the NLL after the Cleveland Tate Stars and Pittsburgh Keystones folded after the 1922 season. Led by Hall of Fame player/manager Joseph Preston "Pete" Hill, who was personally chosen by NNL president Rube Foster. Hill found himself in charge of a team culled from the defunct NNL Pittsburgh Keystones, the independent (low-level) New Orleans Crescent Stars, and players who attended an open April tryout held in Chicago.

The Bears made their home at Athletic Park (as Borchert Field was known at the time), but never really found their footing in Milwaukee. Ignored by the mainstream press, and struggling in the face of stronger competition around the Negro National League, they failed to bring fans to the park. After only nine games at home, the Bears converted to a traveling club, playing the rest of their schedule on the road. Even that proved too daunting for the club, and after limping to a 12-41 record the Bears folded in September, with four weeks remaining in the NLL season.

Incidentally, the other team created to round off the NLL schedule, the Toledo Tigers, was even less successful than the Bears. The Tigers followed an almost-identical path, only quicker: they floundered at home, merged with an independent team from Cleveland, became a traveling club at the end of May and disbanded in mid-July. The Tigers players were the distributed to two other franchises in an effort to bolster them, one of the lucky recipients being... the Milwaukee Bears.

This one all-too-brief season was to be the extent of the Negro Leagues' tenure in Milwaukee. The Bears' owners were represented at the winter meetings later that year (and reportedly even participated in the league's revenue sharing), but they never fielded another club in the Cream City, and no other owners ever stepped forward to try their hand.

What's particularly interesting to me is that there is so little actual information available about the Bears. Contemporary records are spotty, not surprising considering the poor treatment they received from the press. There's a new traveling exhibit devoted to the Negro Leagues making its way through the Milwaukee Public Library system. Reportedly, the MPL is lending some of its own collection on the Bears - anybody in Milwaukee able to attend, maybe take some pictures?

Though the Milwaukee Bears failed to gain traction during that short 1923 season, they continue to fire the imagination of the game's students, and have always been well-represented in Turn Back the Clock events. The uniforms worn during those games, however, is an interesting story. For a team which played only part of one season, the Bears have an amazing variety of throwbacks out there.

The first Bears throwback of which I am aware was worn by the Brewers in the 2001 Annual Negro League Tribute Game in Detroit. The Tigers wore Detroit Stars uniforms, and the Brewers wore these:

Starting in 2006, the Brewers made Negro League tribute games (and with them, Bears throwbacks) an annual event. New throwback uniforms were unveiled, completely different from those of five years earlier, in a sharp black-and-white color scheme. The caps were pinstriped white with a solid black M. They jerseys featured matching black pinstripes and "MILWAUKEE" across the chest.

Replica jerseys were sold at Miller Park, and a cap was given away to fans.

The Brewers also wore a road gray version of that uniform on a trip to Kansas City on June 24th of that year.

Those were the "official" Milwaukee Bears throwbacks through the 2008 season.

For 2009, the throwbacks have been redesigned, bearing (if you'll forgive me) a stronger resemblance to the one that's been commercially available for the last few years, with vivid blue sleeves and accents on the pants.

I absolutely love the cap logo. Simple yet distinctive.

Hope they make these available for sale.

So now we have a third throwback Milwaukee Bears uniform. At least two distinctive looks, if the pinstriped grays are the road version of the home uniform they wore on Saturday. For a team which failed to complete even a single season, that's pretty impressive. Moreover, it's pretty unlikely.

So which was it? Black and white or blue and orange? What was the justification for moving away from blue and orange to black pinstripes, and now what's the justification for jumping back?

I would love to hear from some Negro National League scholars about the historical accuracy of any of these uniforms. Is any one of them an accurate reflection of what the Bears wore in 1923, or are they all simply guesses (educated, wild or otherwise)?

I'm glad that the Bears are getting so much attention from the current Brewers. I do wish that the club would give their namesake a little of this recognition, however. It's been over a decade since the Brewers wore throwbacks honoring the city's American Association heritage. Since then, it's been all Milwaukee Braves and Milwaukee Bears throwbacks, with the "Milwaukee Cerveceros" thrown in for good measure. Yet the Brews, a baseball institution for half a century, the foundation of Milwaukee's major league success, continues to go unsung.

We Brews fans need to be stronger advocates for the old club.

It's not as though the Brews didn't have many beautiful uniforms from which the Brew Crew might choose. I'd favor either of the home uniforms from Bill Veeck's time with the club, the block letter M:

or the elegant script "Brewers":

There are even a few options should they wish to merge it with the customary Milwaukee Braves throwback game against Atlanta:

I'd go to that game.

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